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Biological Scientists

Biological scientists study living organisms and their relationship to their environment. Most specialize in some area such as ornithology (the study of birds) or microbiology (the study of microscopic organisms).

About two-fifths of all biological scientists work in research and development. Some conduct basic research to increase knowledge of living organisms. Others, in applied research, use knowledge provided by basic research to develop new medicines, increase crop yields, and improve the environment. Biological scientists may work in laboratories and use laboratory animals or greenhouse plants, electron microscopes, computers, electronic instruments, or a wide variety of other equipment to conduct their research. A good deal of research, however, is performed outside of laboratories. For example, a botanists may do research in the volcanic valleys of Alaska to see what plants grow there, or an ecologist may study how a forest area recovers after a fire.

Other biological scientists work in management or administration. They may plan and administer programs for testing foods and drugs, for example, or direct activities at zoos or botanical gardens. Some work as consultants to career firms or to government, while others test and inspect foods, drugs, and other products or write for technical publications. some work in sales and service jobs for companies manufacturing chemicals or other technical products.

Advances in basic biological knowledge, especially at the genetic level, have resulted in a new technology called biotechnology. Biologists using this rapidly developing technology recombine the genetic material of animals or plants, making organisms more productive or disease resistant. The first application of this technology has been in the medical and pharmaceutical area. The human gene that codes for the production of insulin has been inserted into bacteria, causing them to produce human insulin. This insulin, used by diabetics, is much purer than insulin from animals, the only previous source. Many other substances not previously available in large quantities are starting to be produced by biotechnological means; some may be useful in treating cancer and other diseases. Advances in biotechnology have opened up research opportunities in almost all areas of biology, including commercial applications in agriculture and the food and chemical industries.

Most biological scientists who come under the broad category of biologist (D.O.T. 041.061- 030) are further classified by the type of organism they study or by the specific activity they perform, although recent advances in the understanding of basic life processes at the molecular and cellular level have blurred some traditional classifications.

Aquatic biologists (D.O.T. 041.061-022) study plants and animals living in water. Marine biologists study salt water organisms and Limnologists study fresh water organisms. Marine biologists are sometimes called oceanographers, but oceanography usually refers to the study of the physical characteristics of oceans and the ocean floor. (See Career Reports on geologists and geophysicists.)

Biochemists (D.O.T. 041.061-026) study the chemical composition of living things. They try to understand the complex combinations and reactions involved in metabolism, reproduction, growth, and heredity. Much of the work in biotechnology is done by biochemists because this technology involves understanding the complex chemistry of life.

Botanists (D.O.T. 041.061-038) study plants and their environment. Some study all aspects of plant life. While others specialize in areas such as identification and classification of plants, the structure and function of plant parts, the biochemistry of plant processes, or the causes and cures of plant diseases.

Microbiologists (D.O.T. 041.061-058) investigate the growth and characteristics of microscope organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Medical biologists study the relationship between organisms and disease or the effect of antibiotics on microorganisms. Other microbiologists may specialize in environmental, food, agricultural, or industrial microbiology, virology (the study of viruses), or immunology (the study of mechanisms that fight infections). Many microbiologists are using biotechnology to advance knowledge of cell reproduction and human disease.

Physiologists (D.O.T. 041.061-078) study life functions of plants and animals, both in the whole organism and at the cellular or molecular level, under normal and abnormal conditions. Physiologists may specialize in functions such as growth, reproduction, photosynthesis, respiration, or movement, or in the physiology of a certain area or system of the body.

Zoologists (D.O.T. 041.061-090) study animals -- their origin, behavior, diseases, and life processes. Some experiments are with live animals in controlled or natural surroundings while others involve dissecting dead animals to study their structure. Zoologists are usually identified by the animal group studied -- ornithologists (birds), mamalogists (mammals), herpetologists (reptiles), and ichthyologists (fish).

Ecologists study the relationship among organisms and between organisms and their environments and the effects of influences such as pollutants, rainfall, temperature, and altitude on organisms.

Working Conditions

Biological scientists generally work regular hours in offices, laboratories, or classrooms and usually are not exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. However, some work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances in the laboratory. They could be exposed if safety procedures are not followed. Many biological scientists such as botanists, ecological, and zoologists take field trips which involve strenuous physical activity and primitive living conditions.


Biological scientists held about 59,000 jobs in 1990. In addition, about 50,000 held biology faculty positions in colleges and universities.

About 40 percent of nonfaculty biological scientists were employed by Federal, State, and local governments. Federal biological scientists worked mainly in the Department of Agriculture, Interior, and Defense, and in the National Institutes of Health. Most of the rest worked in the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, or commercial or nonprofit research and development laboratories. A few were self-employed.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

The Ph.D. degree generally is required for college teaching, independent research, and for advancement to administrative positions. A master's degree is sufficient for some jobs in applied research and for jobs in management, inspection, sales, and services. The bachelor's degree is adequate for some nonresearch jobs. Some graduates with a bachelor's degree start as biological scientists in testing and inspection, or get jobs related to biological science such as technical sales or service representatives. Others become biological technicians, medical laboratory technologists or, with courses in education, high school biology teachers. (See Career Reports on clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, science technicians, and secondary school teachers). Many with a bachelor's degree in biology enter medical, dental, veterinary, or other health profession schools. Some enter a wade range of occupations with little or no connection to biology.

Most colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in biological science and many offer advanced degrees. Curriculums for advanced degrees often emphasize a subfield such as microbiology or botany but not all universities offer all curriculums. However, specialization on one life form is being deemphasized in favor of study of basic biochemical and genetic life processes. Advanced degree programs include classroom and field work, laboratory research, and a thesis or dissertation. Biological scientists who have advanced degrees usually begin in research or teaching. With experience, they may become managers or administrators within biology; others leave biology for nontechnical managerial, administrative, and sales jobs.

Biological scientists should be able to work independently or as part of a team and be able to communicate clearly and concisely, both orally and in writing. Those doing field research in remote areas must have physical stamina.

Job Outlook

Employment of biological scientists is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Most growth will be in private industry. Many more biological scientists will conduct genetic and biotechnical research and help develop and produce products developed by new biological methods. In addition, efforts to clean up and preserve the environment will continue to add to growth. More biological scientists will be needed to determine the environmental impacts of industry and government actions and to correct past environmental problems. Anticipated increases in health-related research should also result in growth. Employment of biologists is expected to grow slowly in government. In addition to jobs arising from growth in demand for biologists, openings will occur as biological scientists transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Many persons with a bachelor's degree in biological science find jobs as science or engineering technicians or health technologists and technicians. Some become high school biology teachers. However, they are usually regarded as teachers rather than biologists. Those with a doctorate in biological science may become college and university faculty. (See Career Reports on science and engineering technicians, High school teachers.)

Biological scientists are less likely to lose their jobs during recessions than those in many other occupations since most are employed on long-term research projects or in agricultural research, activities which are not much affected by economic fluctuations.


According to the College Placement Council, beginning salary offers in private industry in 1990, averaged about $21,600 a year for bachelor's degree recipients in biological science.

In the Federal Government in 1990, biological scientists having a bachelor's degree could begin at $16,700 or $20,660 a year, depending on their college records. Those having the master's degree could start at $20,700 or $25,300, depending on their academic records or work experience; those having the Ph.D. degree could begin at $30,053 or $36,570 a year. Biological scientists in the Federal Government averaged $41,000 a year in 1990.

Related Occupations

Many other occupations deal with living organisms. These include he conservation occupation of forestry technician, range manager, and soil conservationist, as well as agricultural scientist, soil scientist, and life science technician. The wide array of health occupations are all related to those in the biological sciences, as are occupations dealing with raising plants and animals such as farmer and farm manager, animal breeder, landscape contractor, florist, nursery manager, and greenskeeper.

Sources of Additional Information

General information on careers in biological science is available from:

American Institute of Biological Sciences, Office of Career Service, 730 11th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20001-4584.

American Society of Zoologists, 104 Sirius Circle, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360.

For information on careers in physiology, contact:

American Physiology Society, Membership Services Dept., 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.

For information on careers in biochemistry, contact:

American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD 20814.

For information on careers in botany, contact:

Dr. Gregory Anderson, Secretary, Botanical Society of America, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, U-43, 75 North Eagleville Rd., Storrs, CT 06269-3043.

For information on careers in microbiology, contact:

American Society for Microbiology, Office of Education and Professional Recognition, 1913 I St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20006.

Information on Federal job opportunities is available form local offices of State employment services or offices of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, located in major metropolitan areas.


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